Short story: Sunshine
In a world ravaged by pandemics people consider Sung-hwan to be a lucky man. If only they knew ... By Gord Sellar.
When the sun comes up, Sung-hwan's already out the door, and on his way to the hospital. Today, it's a hospital on Yeouido, the island in Western Seoul where the National Assembly building is located. On the way to his truck – an old Bongo half-tonne parked in a crumbling parking high-rise that went up soon after the last bird flu outbreak – he passes the disused entrance to the subway, its steps littered with trash and discarded clothing. Usually, he would frown at it, but today, despite himself, he smiles a little.
Sung-hwan is neither doctor nor nurse; not a scientist or even a patient ... not any more. He is highly skilled, and his training has been arduous, but none of it occurred in a classroom. In the old days, he walked steel girders nearly 100 floors up, poured concrete and positioned steel beams and hauled men out of worksite disasters. With time, he was promoted, and as the machines proliferated, the long game of survival began.
There had been so much to survive: the automation of worksite after worksite, with the most menial jobs first, but slowly moving on to the more complex ones. He'd been constantly lucky (or maybe unlucky?) enough to rise just high enough that the newest bots couldn't replace him, though never high enough to end up behind a desk, much less get a retirement fund or join the routine of meetings abroad and office booze parties. Still, he'd done better than most of his friends. Now gaunt old men with lean faces scarred and creased by various poxes and outbreaks, they had mostly ended up in struggling corner shops, or on the bottom rung in trash mining crews. A few ended up on the teams rebuilding Pyongyang up north, stuffed with preventative pills.
They all still call him lucky. And perhaps in some ways he is.
Sometimes, anyway. Like when the Bongo starts cleanly, engine purring.
If you ask Sung-hwan to tell you which outbreak was the worst, he'll lie to you. Looking off into the distance with unusually bright eyes, the strain of memory will cross his face, and he'll finally say, "I wish I had studied harder in school."
Then he'll sit, quietly ruminating, until you ask him again, ask him why.
He’ll most likely tell you then about the one he survived: the first one, the MERS outbreak of 2015. Unlike so many, he came through it fine: his skin is unscarred, and indeed, compared to everything the world has endured since, the outbreak was minor, albeit terrifying. But for Sung-hwan, it feels like the moment everything changed.
He'll laugh as he tells you about the person who skipped quarantine to go play golf, and the doctor who'd gone to conferences and exposed thousands.
He'd been working a job down in Pyeongtaek, and bought a can of beer at a convenience store in his off-hours. An old man, bleary-eyed and flushed of face, had coughed and sneezed on to him in a way nobody thought much of at the time. A week later, Sung-hwan ended up in quarantine at the local health centre, along with his whole crew, watching the infection rate climb day by day, searching the internet for any new information while the government cautioned people not to spread "false rumors" while refusing to release any actual information. The long, anxious phone calls from Mi-hwa, when she'd put Sung-ho and little Haetbit on the phone to tell him they loved him. Sung-hwan can still hear their little voices, their breathless "Saranghae!", the giggling confusion of children giddy to see their father again, who don't understand 37% fatality rates or unknown means of transmission.
"The press conferences drove us crazy," he says. He can't tell you how many there were, only that they were useless, stuffed with platitudes such as, "Stay calm," and "Wash your hands". He'll laugh as he tells you about the person who skipped quarantine to play golf, and the doctor who'd gone to conferences and exposed thousands. "But it wasn't just them. People just, they didn't know. We were innocent. Most of us didn't even cover our mouths when we coughed and sneezed ..."
The innocence survived that outbreak, but not for long. When Sung-hwan tells this story, he always emphasises exactly what had been done, what had happened. Of how a doctor, previously in good health, had gone to several events attended by thousands, and then, a few days later, had found himself short of breath, feverish and coughing. Or how, a few days later, the mayor of the city had all but seceded from the central government. Of the criticisms and infighting, the confusion.
"It was like a dress rehearsal," he'll say. "A disastrous one."
If he'd seen this structure back in the '80s, he'd have thought it was
some kind of futuristic palace, shimmering and incandescent.
Sung-hwan takes the long way to the old hospital, opting to take the Wonhyo Bridge, because the road passes the new hospital that has replaced it. One of its wings is already operational, and is a marvel: massive, shining with glass and solar panels, with greenery on the roof. Cars come and go, windows shut tight as they zoom past patients sitting in the sun, in clothes as white as their respirator masks.
If he'd seen this structure back in the ‘80s, he'd have thought it was some kind of futuristic palace, shimmering and incandescent. "You don't understand," he often told his young, pampered underlings. "When I was a kid? Before the '88 Olympics, my lunch was rice and kimchi. After the Olympics? Rice and kimchi and sausage!" He would never have believed, as a little boy, that this structure was temporary, built to be razed in a decade or less. It is the newest hospital in the country, top of the line, and yet everything in it is designed for only a decade's use.
He cranes his neck to get a glimpse of the expanded wing, the secondary structure out back that wasn't quite finished yet. A couple of spinnerbots veer into view, churning out intertwined lines of hagfish thread as structural supports; the silk shimmers in the early morning sunlight for a moment, before a spraybot follows them, coating the lines with the first of many layers of biopolymer adhesive sealant. Sung-hwan is tempted to stop his truck and watch the building take shape, forming as if in some time-lapse video of a plant growing.
He sighs. If only they'd thought of all this earlier. So often, he has had the strange sense that he was born a decade or two too early, that everything the young call "improvements" ought to have arrived when they could have saved the people he loved, fended off the great disasters, though that is senseless: without the disasters, nobody would have gone to these lengths in the first place.
Sung-hwan does not stop the truck, does not even slow down much. As his foot begins to depress the brake, a message comes through, routed wirelessly from his phone to the truck's radio.
"Mr. Choi," his phone narrates the message, in the voice of a pop star from his youth, who'd been lost to the world in some epidemic overseas, when she'd flown there in hope of safer treatment. "Are you close? One of the interior spraybots has failed."
Back when he was just a kid out in the countryside, Sung-hwan once heard a mudang – a shaman – say that some stories insist on being told. He'd stumbled on to the site of an exorcism, and found a grinning pig's head impaled on a stake. Too young to be scared or shy, he'd waked up to the shaman and said, "Why do you let the spirits use your body?" The shaman had told him the weight of the spirits was sometimes too great, and they had to be let loose for a while, to speak and shout and tell their stories.
Sung-hwan has stories like that, buried deep within, fighting to get told. Some he occasionally tells, but others he never does. There is the one that robbed him of his little son, a decade before. This is perhaps the outbreak that haunts him most, the one that drives him to drink on moonless winter nights, with nothing but the noise of Haetbit's giggling in the next room to keep him company.
"It was the school," he says. "The government ... the Ministry of Education wanted to close them down, all the schools, and the Ministry of Health refused. It wasn't the first ... how could they ... ?" He never finishes the question: however reasonable the dispute seemed at the time, with the passing of years it has transmuted into something inexplicable and monstrous. That the illness – a syndrome that targeted the central nervous system, like a scorpion's sting – had never been seen to be transmitted to tertiary infections matters little now: such surprises are always possible.
This story is not the heaviest. Losing his son Sung-ho destroyed his family, in spirit at least, but he hadn't watched the boy die before him. They'd said the illness had been contracted in a hospital: a teacher – not even Sung-ho's – had gone for a routine biopsy on a dark spot on her arm. The biopsy had come back negative: it had just been a dark spot. Not that she'd lived long enough to see the results: she'd carried the infection home, and then to work. A day later, nearly the whole school had died.
When people call Sung-hwan lucky, this is the story he longs to tell them. The story of a boy with a grinning face who'd gone to school carrying a bright yellow lunchbox with a happy little penguin on the front. Sung-hwan had packed the lunch that morning, and had never seen the lunch box again: it had been incinerated, along with everything in the school ... including his little son.
It had been painless for the boy. This does not help Sung-hwan, though: it isn't painless for him.
But usually, the weight of this story doesn't overwhelm him. He lets people imagine him as blessed, his life utterly charmed. Somehow that illusion makes it more manageable. He only tells this story to the ones whose faces show a grave loss. He might tell you this story, if there is some hint in your eyes that you've a story of your own, heavy and hidden within you. It might be a dark night, with a bottle of booze on the table and the vast, incomprehensible city shimmering all around. This city has rocketed too fast, too far; it is only understandable when Sung-hwan mutters, "They've left us behind".
Only later would you realise he might not have meant his son, and whoever you may have also lost.
Sung-hwan almost never tells anyone what happened to his wife. It is too heavy to let free too often, and when he does it crushes the decency out of him
When Sung-hwan arrives at the old hospital, he is confronted by a strange juxtaposition: the machinery has done precisely what it is supposed to do, and the exterior of the hospital is almost completely covered in black material, the outermost layer of a series including hagfish webbing, flexible nanopolymer, and polycrete. The plumbing has been sealed with metal slag, and the structure is nearly ready for the final seal that precedes the commencement of internal compression. Yet he can see there, before him, the hospital as it appeared decades before: the line of cabs at the taxi stand, the small garden outside where patients had come in their paper gowns to smoke and chit-chat. On a lucky day, one might have caught a glimpse of the rabbits that lived under the hill at the centre of the greenery, surrounded by benches, and taken soothing comfort in the sight of the innocent creatures' play.
All that is gone, the death sentence on the hospital almost carried out. If only one of the other approaches had worked: microwaving the structures, flooding them with super-antimicrobial solutions ... if only something else had wiped out the microscopic menageries of horrors that had built up over the years, fueled by antibiotic abuse and the constant evolution of bacteria and viruses. When Sung-hwan had been young, people had feared the great disasters – the superflu, the pandemic – and so the long-tail disasters had gone unaddressed, until they could no longer be ignored, and until the hospitals could not even be demolished in the normal way.
The patients are gone now, the rabbit warrens abandoned, the hospital unrecognisable beneath its layers of containment medium. An army of small bots swarm over the surface, layering on the final exterior surface treatment, a black solution of some substance too complex for Sung-hwan to fully understand, not that he needs to: the machines check their own work, more efficiently than any human worker could. Soon they will finish, and most of the little machines will scurry inside as the last few seal off the final entrance. The ones within will rip apart the building's contents, object by object, and finally the hospital itself will come down, disassembled within its shrinking compression container until it has been reduced to a minimal size: a black platform that will sit unused, until the officials decide whether to transport it away, or lower it into the Earth. Soon, it will be as if no hospital had ever even stood there.
This is how hospitals are demolished, now; the only way to contain the horrors hidden within.
"Good morning, Mr. Choi," says the robot, just as the nurses here used to say it: polite, efficient, and cheerful. It makes him shudder
"You're finally here," says Gyun, when Sung-hwan enters the command booth.
"Yeah," Sung-Hwan mutters, as he slips out of his street clothes, and slip-on his hazmat suit. "Any idea ... ?"
"Not really, I've been busy," Gyun says, without explaining. "It's someplace near the sanbuin-gwa, I think. Need a map?" Sung-hwan tenses as he hears the department name: OB/GYN? It's a terrible coincidence, though he keeps his surprise hidden with long-perfected control. Gyun doesn't know his Mi-hwa's story, much less that it happened at this very hospital.
"Why'd the bot fail?"
"Not sure," Gyun says with a shrug, flexing the joints of his artificial legs. "Probably a software error? It's gone offline. I could just send in another ..."
"Nah," Sung-hwan says. "Better figure out what's wrong." Better than having the bot go back online after it's sealed in, and hamper the demolition process to the point of having to break the seal again. He suits up and makes his way to the hospital's only remaining entrance. The guardian bot's lights flicker up and down its side as he speaks his name, registering his passage as allowed. It warns him of the schedule for sealing: he has three hours, plenty of time. "Hurry up," it warns him, sounding for all the world like an over-eager child.
He chuckles at the machine, so softly he barely hears himself, as he hurries inside.
Within, dark hallways stretch into the distance, filled with abandoned cots, TV stands, and mounds of clothing and bedsheets. The hospital, he realised, is haunted: not by ghosts, though the things that haunt it are invisible and vengeful. He can feel them all around, these things that can never be exorcised. But he is haunted, too, by the sound of Mi-hwa singing to their children, by the paleness of her fingertips on the plastic sheeting, the sound of it swishing at her touch.
A dead escalator stands near the entrance, illuminated in his HUD: he needs to go upstairs. He rode this very escalator with Mi-hwa, years ago, the first Saturday afternoon of each month. Had their last visit been in the fourth month, or the fifth?
This will be the last time he sees this place, he realizes ... the last time anyone sees it.
He mounts the escalator, slowly, and with his gloved hand touching the railing, as if the contact might release some long-forgotten memory, bright and sweet, that could shield against the others.
Now the building is simply a great black crypt, like the failed nuclear plants in Chernobyl and Fukushima and Wolseong.
Sung-hwan almost never tells anyone what happened to his wife. It is too heavy to let free too often, and when he does it crushes the decency out of him.
He dreams of letting loose the containment bots, to seal and take apart the whole city, so that everyone might understand what losing everything feels like. He fantasises, sometimes, of training bots to find the old doctors who'd boosted their appointment books and incomes by prescribing quarter-courses of antibiotics, demanding patients return three days later. But who else would he have to destroy? The profiteers in their high-rises, the government that did nothing? That story's weight immobilises him, though it always returns when he thinks of Mi-hwa.
She had been pregnant with their third child. When the blood work indicated a statistically elevated possibility of trisomy, they'd gone ahead with an amniocentesis. After all, what could go wrong? Better safe than sorry, she said, and he, naïvely, agreed. The doctor seemed so laid-back about it, rubbing the iodine on to her belly, and taking the syringe from the nurse with a reassuring smile on his face. Catastrophe had seemed utterly impossible then.
Sung-hwan has dissected the procedure a million times in his memory: the nurse removing the needle from its sterile packaging with gloved hands. The iodine ... could a virus live inside the iodine? It seemed impossible. The cotton balls? Had it just been in the air, and somehow landed on the needle, against all odds? Or upon her own skin, somehow caught on the needle's tip and injected into her, while she lay with her eyes closed, her hands bunched into fists, brave and terrified and quiet?
After the procedure, she'd said, "It didn't hurt at all. It's amazing!"
It had happened so quickly; a few hours later, the pink and red striations on her skin, the pain. They lost the child before the ER staff had even gotten around to seeing her. A few hours later, she looked like a war victim curled up on the cot. How do you comfort a dying woman – your wife – through a plastic sheet, too far away to hear the words she mutters as she fights to breathe? It had only taken a few more hours, not even enough time for her to doubt, plead, or weep. Not even enough time to give up. It reduces Sung-hwan to wordlessness, this search for the moment when some other choice might have meant everything turning out fine. He knows that breaching the plastic and holding her as she died would have killed him, and left their daughter an orphan, but he still regrets it more than anything else he's done. He still dreams of going to her, cradling her as the life seeped out of her, whispering softly so she knows, at least, that she has not been abandoned to the darkness.
He has only told Mi-hwa's story twice, and never to a stranger like you.
The stalled bot isn't at the OB/GYN office at all. It's over in cardiology, its lights flashing frenetically. It seems to have done its job relatively well: the walls, ceiling and floor in the area are coated with hardening accretion slime, and in the HUD in his suit, Sung-hwan can see that the particulate matter count for the internal air is already astonishingly low, even without the air turbines having been run. He approaches it carefully, nervous that it might mistakenly spray his suit with the slime, complicating matters for his exit.
But the bot keeps its sprayers retracted: it's not suffering that kind of a malfunction.
When he gets close, he realises that it has stopped because of the couple on the floor. Human bodies. It is programmed never to spray in the presence of people, living or dead.
The pair lie face-down, hands intertwined. Somehow, Sung-hwan doesn't think they were the adventuring "urban explorer" type: nobody trespasses into abandoned hospitals anymore. Looking down at them, he finds himself imagining their story: a pregnancy gone wrong? A child lost to an opportunistic infection in the nursery? The stories are distant, typical, empty of weight. They are not his stories.
"Good morning, Mr. Choi," says the robot, just as the nurses here used to say it: polite, efficient, and cheerful. It makes him shudder.
He skips the customary greeting – speaking to machines seems a waste to him, now – and cuts to the chase: "They're dead. Major biohazard, I'd say. Photograph and index their names and faces, take a DNA sample so we can notify next of kin. Then continue with the demolition, with the bodies inside."
The robot asks for a confirmation key, which he issues on his own authority. It manipulates them so that they are face up, before photographing the pair. Their faces look pained, but their eyes look calm. He will see them again, those eyes, in his sleep tonight, he is sure. He stands before the pair, wishing he could have caught them sneaking in, so he could have told them that whatever drove them to this, it was no solution.
These are people to whom he might have told his stories, even the one he has never told anyone.
Haetbit was a child of the early 'oughts, as her name suggests: "pure" Korean words had become fashionable baby names at the time. Her name means sunlight, and in the darkness after Mi-hwa's and Sung-ho's death, she had been the only sunshine in Sung-Hwan's life.
She'd grown up to be pretty enough, though strikingly different from the mother she'd barely known. For a girl who'd lost her mother so early, she'd somehow, miraculously, remained bright, cheerful and incredibly motivated ... and she'd developed an idea contrary to the one popular during her childhood: while most had become distrustful of doctors, she'd come to see them as super-heroic, going so far as to defy her father and study medicine.
Then, a few months ago and in the middle of her internship, she'd come home during her day off to have dinner with her father – the only remaining member of her family. That evening, the unthinkable happened. At first, when she began giggling, Sung-hwan had assumed it was just stress, or a joke he'd missed, or a good mood.
But she kept on giggling. Roaring laughter soon filled the house, continuing for minutes at a time, until Haetbit had almost asphyxiated; then came a brief respite, a few tears on her cheeks. And then, more laughter. It had been terrifying to see the joy in her eyes – true joy, happiness such as baffled Sung-hwan hadn't felt in years. She laughed so hard it hurt.
"I'm sorry, appa," she said, during one of the quiet moments, before slipping into an unresponsive silence.
He hadn't known what do with her. It was late, all the clinics were closed and house calls were expensive, but nobody went to hospitals anymore. She told him not to bother, that she knew what this was. When he asked her to explain, she began laughing again, unable to speak clearly. Online, nothing but rumours and comments and stories awaited him, confusing and useless: whatever could events in Tanzania two generations ago have to do with this? Who was Saint Vitus? None of it made any sense.
Finally, Haetbit had texted someone. A young doctor named Minsoo who had come immediately, serious-faced. Minsoo had been handsome, and Sung-hwan couldn't help but wonder whether he'd been more than just a doctor friend ... perhaps, her lover? But he hadn't had a chance to ask: the doctor had taken Haetbit into the other room to examine her, and then emerged with a serious face.
The explanation he offered was too technical for Sung-hwan to follow. He also gave Sung-hwan a shot and told him to wear a ventilator mask at home from now on. And then he'd gone, only to return a week later ... and one last time, about a month after. He has not come back since.
Haetbit no longer speaks.
Mostly she drifts, silently lost in some other world, some empty nowhere place; but some of the time she is back in our world, the house full of her laughter and her eyes full of true, unmistakeable, delirious joy. If she is troubled by the fatigue of her peals of laughter, of the ribs she has broken during her joyful episodes, she has never shown it, though the exhaustion is clearly visible. He must feed her, for neither the vacancy nor the joy allows hunger to register in her mind.
Sung-hwan has never told anyone this last story, this most recent story of his. He has told nobody – and will tell nobody – of how he stopped wearing the ventilator at home a few weeks ago, hoping maybe he, too, might be stricken by this, the kindest of all the sicknesses he has ever seen.
Two hours after Sung-hwan emerges from the hospital, most of the spinners hurry inside, and the few remaining units finish sealing off the exterior. Now the building is a great black crypt, like the failed nuclear plants in Chernobyl and Fukushima and Wolseong. But unlike them, it will not stand as a reminder: it will be swallowed up by the Earth.
After Sung-hwan has decontaminated and dressed, he goes into the control room, where Gyun sits drinking a coffee.
"All sorted out?" Gyun asks. He is bleary-eyed, having been on-site since the night before.
"Mmm," Sung-hwan says, sparing him the story of the bodies within. The software will have already submitted the photographs and his verbal report to all the proper authorities.
"Well, then I'll leave you to it." In the old days, Gyun would have probably said: “Or ... you could come with me, get something to eat. We could go someplace nearby”. Technically, someone should be onsite, but there isn't a recorded instance of things going wrong at this stage. In the old days, Sung-hwan would have smiled and taken him up on the offer, and gone for dinner, grateful for the company.
But Gyun does not say that. He only says, "Are you all right?"
Sung-hwan is staring at an upper corner of the hospital, where, already, the outline of its shape has begun to cave in, the bots inside tearing the top floor's interior apart. It seems like the most beautiful, hilarious thing in the world, and Sung-hwan hears himself laughing. Without panic – for panic is not joyful – he fights the laughter hard enough to say a few words.
"Get in your suit," he says. And, "Then take me home." As Gyun hurries off, panicked, Sung-hwan glimpses that secret joke that hides behind his fear and worry, within the hospital's sealed and slumping walls, inside the haunting shadows of the stories that have so long haunted him. They grow weightless, shimmering like sunshine and endlessly labile as the world turns bright and strange all around him.
Joyously, he laughs.